Have you ever had a gaming itch you just needed to scratch? Maybe it’s a longing for a platformer, or maybe you are fed up of modern action RPGs and want to fire up one of the turn based masterpieces of yesteryear. Usually this is a conscious decision, and your satisfaction with your choice is based therein. Now imagine you didn’t know you had an urge to fulfil, until you first delved into the game that satisfied that demand.
This is probably the best way of describing how I feel about entering the first level of Painkiller: Hell & Damnation.
So, what is it about, this new FPS from The Farm 51, which is a re-imagining of the original Painkiller from Polish developer People can fly, that hits the sweet spot I didnt know I had?
First things first, I dont think anyone will disagree that this is without a doubt a “switch off your brain” game. That in itself does not constitute a bad thing, but it does affect whether you’ll enjoy this romp, and this is exactly why it had such a profound impact on me.
Entering the first level equipped with a shotgun and the new “Soulcatcher” (more on this later), and looking at your UI displaying health and armour, I felt transported back to the heady days of the mid 90′s. The era of Doom, Quake and Duke, in the halcyon days when a gig was somewhere you went to hear music, and had no bearing on the PC World at large.
What ensued for the next eight hours was a cacophony of hard rock music, gory violence and loud explosions, as I made my way from kill room to kill room despatching hordes of demons and their minions.
Painkiller, puts you in the shoes of Daniel Garner, the anti-hero from the original series, and you join him as he is held in purgatory in what appears to be the aftermath of his battles from the original game. You are approached by the Grim Reaper, who offers you a dubious deal. Provide him with seven legions of souls, and he will reunite you with your wife Catherine. Having bested the demon lords of hell, and even the devil himself, the Grim Reaper believes you’ll disrupt the balance between good and evil, and so to kill two birds with one stone, he will set you on this path to join your wife in heaven in exchange for collecting the souls of the vanquished.
Making good use of the Unreal 3 Engine, eminently capable of being run on a good, mid range PC, Painkiller does not fail to impress with its graphical finery. Enemies are as awesome as they are frighteningly grotesque, and the environments and lighting allow you to enjoy The Farm 51′s vision of Hell. Whether it be a graveyard, a dilapidated opera house or a ramshackle amusement park, you will be hard pushed not to stop for a few seconds between battles to absorb the atmosphere that oozes from every level.
Gameplay is as simplistic as you would hope from a game that is doing its best to distance itself from the current climate of all singing and all dancing first-person shooters. Movement is smooth and fluid, and the weapons feel accurate and balanced, especially in the single player campaign. The approach to enemies has also been refined to ensure that the transition from one kill room to the next, or one level to another is not a grinding experience. The Farm 51 has created a good range of varied enemies, which it introduces periodically to the level, to try to keep you engaged. These tend to transition as you progress through a level, and are changed up completely upon entering a new area, to ensure you keep on your toes, and try to utilise your wide array of weapons to their greatest effect.
One thing that is truly special in this outing, is the inclusion of game bosses. These are not your lazy end of level baddies that are just a variation of some of the previous enemy models; instead, theyare gigantic, awe inspiring overlords, whose size and scale puts them in the realm of some of the foes encountered in the likes of Dark Souls and Dragon’s Dogma. In these battles a small amount of lateral thinking is essential, and is likely requires multiple attempts before isolating and exploiting their weakness.
Your range of weapons span the generic to the outlandish. As per FPS canon, you have your obligatory shotgun, rocket launcher and miniguns with which to despatch foes, but as this is a game with a supernatural theme you also have weapons that fall well outside the norm. Of course, this would not be Painkiller without “The Painkiller” itself, and Daniels Spinning bladed staff of evisceration has made a welcome return while bringing along a few new friends. The “Soulcatcher” is one of the new appearances, and is a large skulled weapon that fires saw blades on your primary fire, and the secondary fire absorbs any dropped souls into your collection, or attempts to rip the souls directly from any enemies unfortunate to be caught in its grasp. Each weapon has a secondary fire, with all of the arsenal from the original making a reappearance.
With a well formed co-op mode in the campaign, which scales enemies in a similar fashion to Borderlands, and an equally robust multiplayer this is definitely a game you can enjoy with friends. All the standard multiplayer formats are here, with Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag mode. In addition, you also have a survival mode, which pits you and several other players against wave upon wave of enemy combatants in a map drawn directly from the campaign. This could quite easily have been called “Campaign+” as the format is almost identical in scope to the waves of enemies you will encounter in one of the many kill rooms throughout the story mode.
In Multiplayer it must be said, that the weapons feel relatively balanaced, with only the Chain Gun (Rocket Launcher/Minigun Combo Weapon), feeling slightly overpowered.
Plot, in and of itself, is sparse and rarely glimpsed throughout the game, and is one of the things I personally saw as a case of dropping the ball. If you are new to the series, as I am, there is no catalyst for you to bond with Daniel, no understanding of the motivations that drive him, and little to no understanding of why he has come to be in the predicament he is in. To this extent, it does appear that this undertaking was more of a fan service than an attempt to breathe new life and draw new players to their already established fan base. During the introduction, Daniel himself seems to confirm that the events of the original Painkiller have already taken place, yet the areas and the bosses are almost identical to the original game. This left me a bit confused, as due to the lack of explanation in the game, and variance between the original plot and the current story, I wasn’t entirely sure if this was meant to be a sequel or a straight up remake.
Whether this is due to an oversight on the part of the developers, or if this is because they had the belief that most people playing this will be familiar with the story is unknown, but it did make it difficult for me to get the full package from a title that has a lot going for it.
That said, some of its greatest strengths are also its greatest weaknesses. Their decision to return to an old school form for the franchise has tied them to the old formula of moving from kill room to kill room, and being unable to progress any further until all enemies are defeated. Not only did this get repetitive during the course of the game, which may have been remedied had there just been a slight increase in the variation of enemies, but on more than one occasion the physics at play also indirectly affected my enjoyment. At several stages throughout, I managed to inadvertently catapult an enemy into an area out of the current arena. With no way to get to or kill the enemy, it then fell to restarting from the last checkpoint in order to progress any further in the game.
In addition, it’s rigid, almost dogmatic homage to old school gameplay, means there is no real innovation to be gained in this title, and that in itself is kind of what I believe they were going for when undertaking this remake. You can take from this what you will, and when deciding to go for this game you will have to know what you want. Do you want something new and different, or do you want something that takes an original concept and brings it up to date?
Most of the Modern First Person Shooters I have played in recent years seem to be trying to outdo each other in terms of depth, character movement and realism. Painkiller: Hell & Damnation takes all of these concepts, and happily discards them all. There is no pretention in how they have designed this game, it is quite simply a beautifully crafted, accomplished and well polished FPS. For this, there is no doubt the game should be lauded for returning to the old school FPS mould, as it goes to show there is life in the old dog yet.
MLG Rating: 8/10 Platform: PC Release Date: 31/10/2012
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Painkiller: Hell & Damnation for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of one week on a PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.